Monday, January 30, 2012

USS Monitor website launched

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Monday launched a website highlighting the brief, but important, career of the USS Monitor, the little ironclad that could.

The unveiling of the website coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Monitor's first launch on Jan. 30, 1862.

The site includes information on the ironclad's construction, inventor John Ericsson, life on board, the Battle of Hampton Roads, anniversary events and the vessel's discovery and conservation.

“This is a momentous year for an influential piece of American history,” said David Alberg, superintendent of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, in a statement. “We will continue to mark important dates throughout the year, including the Battle of Hampton Roads and the sinking of the USS Monitor, through special public events.”

The Monitor is best known for its stalemate battle with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia off Hampton Roads, Va., on March 9, 1862. That confrontation marked the end of the era of wooden warships.

Photo of turret being raised in 2002 off Cape Hatteras, N.C., courtesy of NOAA.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Flag made a martyr and a hero

The New York State Military Museum has created a video that shows some of the meticulous work conducted to conserve a flag at the center of a deadly encounter in the opening weeks of the Civil War. The flag is the large Confederate banner James Jackson flew from the top of his Marshall House hotel in Alexandria, Va., in May 1861. Jackson fatally shot Col. Elmer Ellsworth of Mechanicville, N.Y., after Ellsworth removed the flag from the hotel roof. One of Ellsworth's soldiers then killed Jackson. • See the video

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Kilroy was here: Uncovering soldiers' graffiti inside historic Virginia building

The walls talk to Chris Mills, but they yield their secrets slowly.

The architectural conservator works inches away from the grimy plaster, which is covered by a blue whitewash. He works methodically, using swabs, razors and other equipment to go back in time at the Graffiti House in Brandy Station, Va.

Mills this week was wrapping up his latest stint at the two-story frame house named for graffiti left by Union and Confederate soldiers, principally in 1863.

“It’s tedious work, but I am the first person to see this since 1870,” Mills told the Picket in a phone interview Wednesday. “My job is to protect what is here without a loss to it.”

Three upper rooms have yielded a mother lode of information about the men who fought in the Battle of Brandy Station or moved through the Northern Virginia town during other campaigns.

H.D. Specht, Co. G, 6th Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserves Volunteers Corps was here.

So was a proud member of the 3rd Corps. The federal soldier wrote the unit’s name in huge letters, making it the John Hancock of signatures on one wall in the room named for Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Mills, 48, works at the behest of the Brandy Station Foundation, which has a museum downstairs in the home. The structure is believed to have been built in 1858, three years before the Civil War began. Tradition holds it served as a hospital during the conflict.

Soldiers used charcoal to make their mark, pulling charred wood from the building’s fireplaces.

“It looks like it came right out of a fire,” said Mills, a Pittsburgh native whose business operates out of New York City. “The penmanship is remarkably good.”

The foundation has identified about 35 soldiers, most content to list their name and unit. Several were with the Confederate Stuart Horse Artillery.

Others wrote the name of battles, such as Gettysburg, Rappahannock and Kelly Ford’s.

A Gettysburg notation includes this message: “The Rebels got licked.”

And because victors write the history – or graffiti – they often added their message on top of another. “It appears to be them marking their territory,” said Mills.

One wall in the Stuart room features what’s believed to be the signature of the famous Confederate cavalier, who died in 1864 at Yellow Tavern, Va.

Interestingly, a soldier wrote either a supply or packing list on one wall: Three undershirts, one overshirt, two pair of drawers and three hose (socks).

Graffiti, of course, is not new. Conquerors or passers-through have left messages for centuries.

In Brandy Station and other cities affected by war, it was a sure sign of unrest, Mills said. “Graffiti has always been vandalism.”

The Battle of Brandy Station, in Culpeper County, was one of the greatest cavalry engagements in history.

On June 9, 1863, about 22,000 troops tangled when Union horsemen under Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton launched a surprise attack on Stuart. After an all-day fight in which fortunes changed repeatedly, the Federals retired without discovering Lee’s infantry camped near Culpeper.

Some of the 1,000 estimated casualties may have received medical treatment at the Graffiti House, which the foundation says could have served as a hospital for Union and Confederate forces.

“This battle marked the apogee of the Confederate cavalry in the East,” the National Park Service writes in its summary of the battle. “From this point in the war, the Federal cavalry gained strength and confidence. Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the war and the opening engagement of the Gettysburg Campaign.”

The house, not far from railroad tracks, once faced potential demolition. It housed a telemarketing operation for some time. The foundation acquired it in 2002.

Over time, some sections of graffiti were removed, much of which was returned. Other examples were damaged or destroyed over the years. Someone tried to make wall repairs in the 1970s or 1980s, Mills said.

“The walls were literally falling down,” before the foundation did significant work to stabilize them, according to Mills.

Those structural improvements likely saved the graffiti and the walls from collapsing during the East Coast earthquake last year.

Mills believes the graffiti, which was etched on plaster, was covered within several years of the war. After all, residents in the vanquished South may not have wanted to see daily reminders.

Before then, smoke, nicotine and grime slowly covered the graffiti. That actually helped protect it from lime wash used to cover the walls.

The conservator painstakingly removes as much whitewash as he can to bring the graffiti to the surface. But Mills must work carefully, and he injects acrylic resin into plaster cracks to further strengthen the walls.

In some cases, he leaves an area alone if he can’t do the conservation without damaging the graffiti. Future technology one day may make it easier to remove the lime wash, Mills said.

The foundation, which uses the building as its headquarters, is funding the work and is conducting research on the findings.

Mills has not gotten yet to one wall in the Stuart room, which he says should yield a lot more graffiti.

“We really do rely on donations to do the work,” foundation secretary Peggy Misch recently told the Culpeper Star Exponent. “We feel we step back in time when we come to this house.”

Mills has felt the same way.

He mentioned the discovery of a message left by a soldier who recorded the first snowfall of the year. Such ordinary notations give him a glimpse of the people who were there.

“I like seeing the person,” the conservator said.

Photos courtesy of the Graffiti House, Brandy Station Foundation.

More information on the house, foundation

Monday, January 23, 2012

Quilts wrapped the weary, dead

Few of tens of thousands of Civil War-era quilts survive today, experts say, because they were lost or worn out and thrown away, and in some cases, used to wrap soldiers for burial. This turbulent era of American history is the backdrop for a new exhibition at the Grout Museum of History and Science in Waterloo, Iowa. • Article

Friday, January 20, 2012

First battle took place in Congress

In 1856, with the country deeply divided over slavery, the Senate’s most notorious case of assault captured the nation’s attention and accelerated the march toward civil war. It also forever changed Congress, creating a black mark on the prestigious, stodgy upper chamber. • Article

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Parrott round found in Maine river

Two men diving in the Piscataqua River in Maine recently uncovered an explosive find: an intact 100-pound Parrott artillery shell from the Civil War era. There was a gun carriage factory nearby and the shell may have fallen off the deck of a vessel transporting weapons. Or it could have been a "dud" fired from Fort Sullivan on the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, just across the New Hampshire border. • Article

Monday, January 16, 2012

Longstreet: He did it his way

Supporters of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet gathered Sunday afternoon at his Gainesville, Ga., gravesite for the 14th annual memorial service honoring the controversial Civil War figure. After the event, a reception was held at the offices of the The Longstreet Society, which operates out of the restored remnants of a hotel Longstreet operated in the late 1800s. Longstreet died 1904. He was born in 1821. • Article
Southern-fried | • Reputation reviewed

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A, B, C, or all of the above?

A book released in September is a compilation of the many quizzes a retired military has put together over the past 14 years. John Nischwitz also supplies lists — lots of lists — about Civil War facts, such as alternate names for battles; famous bridges, roads and gaps; maritime vessels; notable houses; forts and prisoner of war camps. • Article

Friday, January 13, 2012

Charleston Museum promises a 'blast'

Grahame Long, curator of history at The Charleston (S.C.) Museum, likens the unusual Quinlivan solid round to a deadly "iron drill bit."

Quinlivans and other projectiles riddled the ironclad USS Keokuk in the April 1863 Battle of Charleston Harbor, resulting in its sinking a day later off Morris Island.

A Quinlivan and 40 projectiles, shells, Minie balls and case shot from the museum's collection are featured in "Blasted: Assorted Projectiles and Explosives of the Civil War," which opened in the venue's lobby this week and continues through Sept. 10.

The city and surrounding islands tended to "mainly be on the receiving end" of explosives and projectiles, Long told the Picket. Charleston, he said, was the most-bombarded city in South during the conflict.

Most of the instruments of death were found in the Charleston area. They are evenly split between Confederate and Union uses.

After the heady weeks following the surrender of Fort Sumter, the Union fleet eventually tightened its noose on the city. Beginning in August 1863, troops threw Parrott and other shells at Charleston over a 567-day period, inducing a form of psyschological warfare. One of the weapons was dubbed the "Swamp Angel."

"This was indiscriminate bombing," said Long.

He points out technological innovations that made the business of killing or destruction, shall we say, a bit more efficient. "There were a thousand different ways to build a better mouse trap."

One example is the increased use of projectiles utilizing timed fuses. Previously, the energy of most artillery rounds were absorbed by walls or other structures.

"With the timed fuses, a lot of that energy was dispersed with full force," Long said.

The exhibit includes fired and unfired Minie balls, a type of rifled, muzzle-loaded bullet that increased effective ranges from 50 yards to about 250 yards. "Something so cheap and simple totally revolutionized how wars were fought," the curator said.

Weapons makers and individuals rushed into production all manner of projectiles. Many worked, others did not.

"War has always been a big business," Long said. "There was money to be made."

The exhibit features a 225-pound incendiary shell fired by Federals from Parrott guns. An exploding chamber in the front was accompanied by incendiary fluid -- coal tar, coal oil and petroleum -- in the rear.

"Blasted" is one of a series of Charleston Museum exhibits marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The next will examine the role of militia units in Charleston.

Photos courtesy of The Charleston Museum, Charleston, S.C. Top image is a James Shell (Pattern 1) with slotted fuse plug. The second is a case shot with timed fuse plug. The third is a Schenkl shell, which provided increased range and accuracy.

More information on the exhibit and other items at the Charleston Museum

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Podcasts detail battles, issues in Ark.

The Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission has added nine podcasts about the state's war history to its website. • Article

Monday, January 9, 2012

'Name that coffee' contest in Va.

The morning coffee blend is sweet and smooth, the afternoon version is robust and full bodied, but neither of them has a name. In an effort to bring attention to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation fund-raising efforts, a contest is under way to name the blends created for the foundation. • Article

Friday, January 6, 2012

'Gray Ghost' rides on in history

John Mosby, "The Gray Ghost," lives on in Northern Virginia, where there are 35 markers or monuments dedicated to events related to Mosby’s Rangers, and a section of U. S. 50 between Dulles Airport and Winchester is named for the cavalryman. • Article

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Trust's 2011 report card

The Civil War Trust says it protected more than 2,000 battlefield acres during the first year of the sesquicentennial commemoration. • Article

Monday, January 2, 2012

This week in history: Pulaski taken

On January 3, 1861, Georgia's state militia forcibly evicted the U.S. Army from Fort Pulaski, preceding the start of the Civil War by three months. Fifty men from the Savannah Volunteer Guards, 50 men from the Oglethorpe Light Infantry and 34 from the Chatham Artillery occupied the fort on the Savannah River.

Fort Pulaski National Monument is currently portraying the fort as it was from 1861 to 1865. "As a part of our commemoration, we are using reproduction flags as a visually effective way of depicting historic events." Tuesday (Jan. 3, 2012) to simulate the historic events, the Georgia flag of secession will fly above the fort.

Photo courtesy of NPS